The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement has successfully impacted the national conversation on many important issues such as the bank bailouts, the Bush tax cuts, persistently high unemployment and stagnant wages (while at the same time, the wealthiest 1% of Americans are enjoying significant growth in their wealth). For many of us who have been paying attention to the radical socio-economic restructuring that has been taking place over the past three decades—of which massive prison expansion has been an acute iteration—we have already been talking about and attempting to raise awareness about these issues. But the images of the occupiers in cities, towns, and rural areas all across the nation has indeed caused many to discuss and reconsider the deleterious and sometimes disastrous effects that corporations and big business have had on our society and environment.
The images of occupiers—not just protesting and raising awareness about corporate power and wealth run amuck, but occupying and camping out indefinitely—represents a compelling and important gesture of the demos reclaiming public space. The foil to these images have been those of police outfitted in military style riot gear physically hitting and pepper-spraying peaceful ‘occupiers’ in New York, Portland, Oakland, Berkeley, Atlanta, Davis, and San Diego. Why do mayors, other politicians, and police officers feel compelled to use brutal force, even if they are being photographed and filmed, in order to clear people from public parks and other public spaces? In his press conference explaining why he ordered the NYPD to clear out Zucotti Park Mayor Bloomberg sardonically proclaimed, “The First Amendment protects speech. It does not protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space. Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.” (New York Times, 11/16/11) While the arguments the protestors have are quite compelling, Mayor Bloomberg overlooks the massive police and prison apparatus at the practically exclusive disposal of the 1%. Nor do the occupiers have the $850,000 that a well known Washington DC lobbying firm asked the American Bankers Association to pay it to launch a media campaign to cast the OWS movement in a negative light. (MSNBC 11/19/11)
The protestors have to make their arguments in the streets under police surveillance and intimidation, and under the threat of assault or arrest. It is clear that the ruling elite does not want people occupying public space, but why does it matter so much that people occupy public space? Certainly it stems from the fact that public space has increasingly become corporatized space. In just about any city in the U.S. corporate logos representing the commercialization of every aspect of daily life are ubiquitous. Perhaps this explains the compulsion to clear protestors from public space. Corporations have circumscribed and refashioned public space through a variety of strategies and technologies to increase profits. The sight of people in public space deliberately refusing to conspicuously spend money and to make it less convenient for others to do so threatens the raison d’etre of corporatized public space. And perhaps this corporatization of public space explains, at least partially, why we have more people in prison than any other country in the world.
Democracy Now ran a story about a protester who was arrested for meditating on the streets of Oakland. The image of dozens of police in riot gear surrounding a man sitting cross-legged in a meditational position dressed in white makes one wonder, is that really necessary? It is difficult to imagine a more passive/peaceful form of protest than meditation, so why the compelling need to arrest him to clear the sidewalk? The protestor told Amy Goodman how during the booking process he was turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody under the Secure Communities program, which shares arrest information from local jails with federal immigration agents. He observed that the same evening that the Oakland Police reportedly spent two million dollars for its violent crackdown on the occupiers, the city had closed five schools. It is a question of priorities where the government spends its money. Immigration detention has become a lucrative growth industry for such corporations as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which literally makes profit from having people occupy its cells. Not only have public parks and streets become corporatized, but so have prisons. Occupiers in tents do not produce profits, but occupiers in jails do.